Taking Control of the Facts

Do it right and auditing changes the way you think. Do it wrong and it changes the way people think of you.

What it’s not

For some,  their perception of “the audit” is that it has to be something of a diagnostic partnership. And you can forgive people for thinking that way, because they probably see a lot of that sort of thing. A self indulgent quasi-consulting exercise masquerading as a “management system audit”, where the actual audit criteria and the requirement for a clean impartial process fly right out of the window. This usually results in a report full of superficial and irrelevant “Opportunities for Improvement” that have little practical use in the management assurance process. A good audit is not about that at all.

What it is

The actual role of the auditor is to get to the bottom of things.  Once you’ve done that, you put those facts, be they good, bad or indifferent, in a report and give that report to whomever has requested it. You then trust that they find it useful, but that is up to them. Your work, for now, is done. That is how the auditor “adds value”, by doing what s/he is paid to do.

Changing the way you think

So why does systems auditing change the way you think? Well, getting to the bottom of things is reaching that point where everything makes sense. When that’s not happening, you’ve not got to the bottom of things, so keep going.

Eventually everything adds up

What you learn is that real idiots are rare, and the reason for a decision not being the right one or not making sense to you is rarely idiocy. When something doesn’t add up, there’s nearly always something you don’t know. Eventually all things add up. This might make you start to look at life events through a different prism. Political decisions that make no sense, for example. You can safely assume there’s something you haven’t been told. When things seem to good to be true, assume things aren’t what they seem – look for the catch. There’s no such thing as a free lunch. Know, for example, that cheap food is cheap for a reason and expertise is expensive for a reason. In the words of Red Adair, if you think experts are expensive, try hiring an amateur.

Why are systems inefficient?

Systems are all inefficient for the same reason – because they can be. You want to eliminate inefficiency? Start by removing the option of inefficiency. It is no coincidence that there is an almost perfect correlation between the more efficient systems and the lowest margins. A system that works to low margins simply can’t be inefficient, so guess what? It won’t be. Efficiency means hard work and nobody volunteers for a hard life, that’s human nature, so efficiency needs sustained pressure of one form or another, otherwise it won’t happen.

Causation, correlation and coincidence

Another thing you learn is to differentiate between the three C’s. Causation, Correlation and Coincidence. To get an appreciation of that, I can give no higher recommendation than to go back through a few Radio 4 More or Less podcasts. It’s a radio program that takes a look back at statistics that have been quoted over the past week, usually by politicians, and puts them through the test of careful analysis. A year or so ago, for example, the program looked at the apparent causal link between weekend admissions to hospital and a higher level of fatality. News reports and some politicians had seized upon the statistic, concluding that this was OBVIOUSLY as a result of poorer care provision at weekends – and that played well to a certain political narrative. But why would that be? What is the causal factor? Why would the quality of care provision plummet over a weekend? Money? The thing is, that’s not the only thing going on. Another factor is that there tends not to be any routine admissions at weekends (that is, for the type of condition where you have a very very high chance of surviving your stay). You’ll never be admitted on a weekend for an ingrowing toenail. Weekend admissions are nearly all emergency admissions and, naturally, the survival rates on emergency admissions are lower than they are for routine admissions. So, correlation and causation. Eventually it makes sense.

Personally I think getting to the bottom of things can be quite a satisfying and rewarding thing. A good auditor will simply take control of the facts, report them in an impartial way, and hope that the recipient can make good use of them in their decision making processes.

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